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Chasing after a fox that isn't there
on 2 May 2013
Michael Ward's thesis is that each of CS Lewis' Narnia stories relates to one of the seven "planets" (the Sun, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn) in the cosmology of the medieval and ancient world. Undoubtedly there is a great deal of material in the Narnia books that reflects the characteristics of the seven planets. However, Ward has not produced a single shred of actual evidence that CS Lewis planned the series so that each book is based on the characteristics of one of the planets. If Lewis planned it that way, he did not tell his brother, his lifelong friend and correspondent Arthur Greeves, his literary friends the Inklings, his publisher, or Pauline Baynes the original illustrator of the books.
Ward therefore has to fall back on the claim that Lewis was secretive and could sometimes tell falsehoods. What Ward calls secretiveness was actually confidentiality. One would not call a doctor secretive because he or she refused to divulge medical information about a patient. The reasons why Lewis married Joy Davidman (p 12) were surely also good reasons for keeping the marriage confidential (secret - if you prefer). Ward's example of falsehood is an occasion when Lewis saved a fox by misdirecting the hunt. This is laughable. Surely any of us would have felt sympathy for the fox and been tempted to do what Lewis did.
Ward likens his "discovery" of the "Narnia Code" to Archimedes discovering the principle of displacement in his bath (p 15) and to John Adams' prediction of the existence of another planet beyond Uranus (p 10). In fact there is no comparison. These two events could both be confirmed by experiment and observation. The only way to check Ward's thesis would be by finding a document in which Lewis confirms it.
Ward claims to have read "absolutely everything that Lewis had ever written" (p 29). Fine, but Ward is selective in his use of Lewis' writings; he ignores anything that goes against his thesis. For example, "All my seven Narnian books, and my three science fiction books, began with seeing pictures in my head. At first they were not a story, just pictures" ("Of This and Other Worlds" p 79). That hardly sounds like a scheme for seven books of seven planets. Again, "I have watched with some care similar imaginary histories both of my own books and of books by friends whose history I knew...My impression is that in the whole of my experience not one of these guesses has on any one point been right: that the method shows a record of one hundred per cent failure" ("Fern Seed and Elephants" p 115). Michael Ward is asking us to accept that his guess is right; more, he is asking us to accept that he has privileged access into the mind of CS Lewis.
Although Ward lists the biography of CS Lewis by Green and Hooper in his "Further Reading" he does not seem to have made use of chapter 11 in which the authors describe the gestation of the Narnia books. It doesn't leave much room for a scheme such as Ward's. Roger Lancelyn Green was a student of Lewis' and later a friend and one of the Inklings. He read and gave constructive feedback on all the Narnia books before they went for publication. Yet he gives no hint that there was a scheme of seven books representing seven planets.
In focussing on the planets, Ward distracts us from recognising the other literary influences in the Narnia books. Lewis was one of the most widely read persons in the Twentieth Century and there are numerous passages in the chronicles which may have (perhaps unconsciously) come from that wide reading. "Lewis could ransack all myth for his dramatis personae, taking what he needed wherever he found it throughout literature and making it his own" (Green and Hooper p 307).
One of the most obvious borrowings is that the kingdom of Narnia is modelled on King Arthur and the chivalry of the Round Table. In "The Lion..." Peter has to win his spurs and is then knighted by Aslan; in "Caspian" Peter sends a chivalrous challenge to single combat to Miraz; in "Dawn Treader" Reepicheep's quest for the "Utter East" mirrors the knightly quest for the Holy Grail, which only the purest knights can attain; in the "Horse and His Boy" the chivalrous conduct of the Narnians and Archenlanders is contrasted with the treachery of Rabadash; and in the "Last Battle" King Tirian feels himself to be dishonoured for attacking two Calormenes without warning.
Taking one story as an example, the "Silver Chair", Ward says that Lewis constructed this story around Moon imagery, i.e. lunacy and water. "The link between the Moon and wetness came about because of the Moon's influence upon Earth's tides" (p 83). But this is not part of the Medieval cosmology and Lewis does not mention it in "The Discarded Image". Only with Isaac Newton's theory of gravity was the Moon (and Sun) recognised as causing the tides. Even in the early Seventeenth Century Galileo devised a theory of the tides that had nothing to do with the Moon. Of course there is water in the book; it starts in the autumn and a lot the action is underground - what else would you expect to find in caves except underground rivers and even seas? The Witch, says Ward, tries to turn Prince Rilian, Puddleglum and the children into lunatics. But she does not - she tries to enchant them. The chapter (Twelve) in which the Witch tries to enchant the others is not about madness; it's actually a rational debate between Naturalism and Supernaturalism - a greatly simplified version of the discussion Lewis put into "Miracles, a Preliminary Study". One of PG Wodehouse' "Jeeves and Wooster" books (The Code of the Woosters) starts with an autumn fog and ends with a downpour of rain. The action centres around possession of an antique cream jug made of silver. Using Ward's logic, we should conclude that Wodehouse constructed this novel out of Moon imagery.
The danger of following Ward's thesis is that we neglect the Christian imagery and message in the Narnian chronicles. Green and Hooper quote from a letter of Lewis in which he outlines the Christian elements in the stories (p 324):
"The Magician's Nephew tells the Creation and how evil entered Narnia.
The Lion etc. the Crucifixion and Resurrection.
Prince Caspian restoration of the true religion after a corruption.
The Horse and his Boy the calling and conversion of a heathen.
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader the spiritual life (especially in Reepicheep).
The Silver Chair the continued war against the powers of darkness.
The Last Battle the coming of Antichrist (the Ape). The end of the world and the Last Judgement."
Ward is asking us to accept that Lewis wrote the seven books according to two quite independent schemes: the Christian scheme above and the Planets scheme!
In "The Inklings" H Carpenter says that Lewis once described a project as "chasing after a fox that isn't there" (p 154). I am inclined to think that the same description can be applied to Michael Ward's "Narnia Code".